Tell Me Your Deepest, Darkest Secret

A Mobile Application Design for a New Social Network

VulneraBuddy Logo

Hi stranger, it’s nice to meet you. Tell me your deepest, darkest secret.

What would you do if a stranger on social media reached out to you and asked this question? Through our research, we aimed to understand how members of online communities respond to and engage in vulnerable conversations or topics.


Our design research goal was to help users create deeper connections through meaningful interactions to build healthy, long-term relationships with other users.

Domain Research

To assess the current state of social media users who initiate or engage in vulnerable conversations online, we completed a literature review and competitive analysis of social media applications with similar aspects. We found that today’s users of social media form surface level connections, do not encounter enough trustworthy content, and that there is still a lingering stigma around mental health and its related topics.

Directed Storytelling

We asked participants questions about their usage, feelings, and thoughts regarding vulnerability on social media. We learned that (1) social media users are more likely to have personal conversations with those they are already familiar with. (2) Although hesitation to initiate these conversations may stem from (3) fears around how they will be perceived, (4) users admire those who are brave enough to put themselves out there. (5) Participants also dislike social media movements that are motivated by harsh judgement (cancel culture), showy displays (influencer culture) and deceit (cat fishing).

Prototype Iteration

So how did these findings manifest in our interactive prototypes?

Our directed storytelling sessions helped us discover what features should be included in our app. We then went through 2 rounds of think-aloud testing to refine our design concept. These studies allowed us to refine the way we presented information and features within the app.


Based on the findings from our research, we landed on three main features we believed were important for VulneraBuddy to offer. The first is a system that matches users to people within 3 degrees of their social network and fosters opportunities for the development of meaningful connections.

MatchingMake a new buddy somewhere around the world.

The next feature is a forum where users can participate in group discussions and join preferred communities or Circles. From our research, we learned that while users admire people who show their vulnerability to the world, they are hesitant to do so themselves due to fear of judgement. Circles would allow users to witness their peers’ vulnerability on a smaller, more intimate scale so that they can feel encouraged to participate in a safe space.

Circles — Connect with strangers who share common interests

Since we also found a desire for stronger connections and increased transparency online, the next feature we included was a question game that can be integrated into direct messages between users. One user would request to play and choose a question to ask, while the other user would confirm or deny their engagement. If the recipient agrees, both users’ answers would be revealed at the same time, but if the recipient says no, then neither users’ answers are revealed. This encourages meaningful conversation while ensuring mutual participation.

Question Game — Break the ice with thought-provoking questions and mutual participation

Think-Aloud Key Takeaways

  • There was a general confusion around the name Psychiq (pronounced “side kick”)
  • Users needed more information about the person they matched with
  • The forum and chat rooms were found to be really helpful and forefront while matching seemed like a secondary feature
  • Users were confused around the presentation of forum rooms (or Circles)
  • Users felt that the questions of the in-chat Question Game should start off less intense and build in intensity after talking to the other user for some time

Some key changes we made during these iterations were the name of the app from Side-Kick to Vulnerabuddy, increasing trust by including more descriptive information about others on the app, and including increasingly personal questions as part of the in-chat question game in order to build rapport between buddies (users).

Measuring Success

So how did we do? Was our design concept able to fulfil our “How Might We” and help users create deeper connections through meaningful interactions to build healthy, long-term relationships?

We asked our participants to tell us how likely they were to engage in vulnerable conversations before and after using our app.

Before using Vulnerabuddy: How likely are you to engage in vulnerable conversations IRL or on social media?

After using Vulnerabuddy: Would you be more likely to engage in more vulnerable conversations because of this app?

Evaluating Success

Before using Vulnerabuddy, our participants either felt neutral about engaging, or were unlikely to engage in vulnerable conversations online.

However, after using Vulnerabuddy, most participants expressed they were either likely or very likely to engage in vulnerable conversations online.

Our results encouraged us! With more time, we’d want to continue iterating on and evaluating our design.

We Present to you, VulneraBuddy

VulneraBuddy is a socialization application that allows people to connect with others within 2–3 degrees of separation in their social network.

The app includes a gamified social network experience that encourages vulnerability and mental health support.

With VulneraBuddy, users are able to build deeper, more trustworthy connections through virtual spaces that encourage mental health discussions.

— Ije Okafor, Gabby Suazo, Onye Nwabueze, Sarah Hand, Victor Grajski

Carnegie Mellon University, Human-Computer Interaction Institute